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Partial Meltdown Just Part Of Japan's Disaster


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Japan is coping with twin disasters in the aftermath of Friday's earthquake and tsunami. The first is a major humanitarian crisis, with thousands feared dead and millions of survivors without food, water or shelter. The second is the developing nuclear crisis. At least two nuclear reactors were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami. A Japanese government official has confirmed a partial meltdown at one reactor. At the same time, experts are trying to prevent an explosion at another reactor.

NPR's Rob Gifford is in Sendai. It's a northern port city of about a million people, and it's about 80 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. And, Rob, where exactly are you and what are you seeing?

ROB GIFFORD: Yes. Well, I'm in the center of the city of Sendai. It took a long time to get here, as you can imagine. There's all sorts of logistical problems. And down by the waterfront, it is a scene of absolute devastation - cars tossed all over the place, houses tossed all over the place, boats that have been just thrown on shore. Complete and utter devastation.

Further up on higher ground here from where I'm speaking to you, actually it's surprising OK. I'm very surprised at how few buildings have come down. So, the earthquake did not wreak too much damage- I don't want to minimize it - but the tsunami has wreaked complete havoc up and down a couple of hundred miles of coastline here.

HANSEN: What do you know about the search and recovery efforts?

GIFFORD: Well, the Japanese government, I guess if any government is prepared for this kind of thing, it is here in Japan where they have earthquakes all the time. And, of course, the word tsunami comes from the Japanese language, so they are used to these kind of things but probably not on this magnitude.

They have really mobilized. They've doubled the number of troops. There's now a hundred thousand troops who have come up to this region. Civilian groups are coming in; foreign groups are coming in, but in parts of these places it did feel as though it was quite slow because there are a lot of evacuees, several hundred thousand people who've been moved back from places nearer to the ocean, and it needs a lot of help fast.

HANSEN: How are people coping with the disaster? And the survivors, are they getting food, water, shelter, blankets?

GIFFORD: They are getting some. And as you can imagine, they're pulling together under pretty dreadful circumstances. And the Japanese people are very tough and very stoical, actually, about a lot of this. And they are helping each other.

But on top of that, of course, we've got this whole other element of the nuclear reactors down the coastline from here, which is just adding to their concern. Just as they're trying to get themselves sorted out with the basics of food and water, we have these big concerns about the nuclear reactors.

HANSEN: Tell us more about that. Because at the same time there's this massive humanitarian crisis, there's a potential nuclear disaster. How is the government responding to that?

GIFFORD: Well, again, they have been mobilizing to evacuate people. I think 170,000 people or so have been evacuated from the area around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. But, of course, this is a very dangerous situation. Officials are talking about the partial meltdown of one of these reactors. So, there's very big concerns that there could actually be another explosion.

The government is saying to people to get out. If you want to be tested for radiation, you can be, but I think we haven't got to that stage yet. We're still scrambling to deal with the emergency as it stands.

HANSEN: So, Japanese officials aren't really saying anything about potential exposure to radiation?

GIFFORD: They have said that any radioactive material that is going to be released into the atmosphere is likely not to be that harmful. So, they're trying to walk that fine line between not panicking everyone by saying that, oh, you know, this is an absolute potential disaster, but at the same time trying to be realistic that there is a real threat of some serious action there at the nuclear plant over the next few hours.

HANSEN: NPR's Rob Gifford in Sendai, Japan. Rob, thank you.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.